Homily on the Feast of the Optina Elders
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we celebrate the memory of the Holy Elders of Optina. These God-bearing elders lived almost in our own day, and their lives and teachings serve as one of the primary inspirations for monastics living here at the Hermitage. Their icons, portraits and photographs adorn the inside of almost every building in our monastery. Portions of their precious relics reside here in our church. Every novice here eagerly reads their lives to lay a foundation for his own monastic struggles, and many a senior monk will later return to read them in order to renew his zeal for the monastic life, and rekindle his devotion to our instructors in piety. Two of our monks bear names of the Optina elders, with perhaps more to come in the future. Bishop George and several of our monks have visited Optina to venerate the relics of these holy men and to worship with the Optina brotherhood, uniting us with them in spirit.
We try to honor and emulate our Holy and God-bearing fathers of Optina, and through our feeble efforts, we humbly ask them to intercede in our behalf, that God may have mercy on us because of our many sins. Our hope is that on this their feast day, we may be renewed in our desire to struggle to uproot the passions, to humble ourselves, to pray with more attention and pain of heart, to keep our lips from speaking evil, to acquire good thoughts, and to love Christ and His Most Pure Mother with heartfelt devotion.
I would like to emphasize this morning one aspect of the Optina Elders that perhaps has not been emphasized so much before: the importance of Church services in the life of a monk.
Firstly, it is important as Orthodox Christian monks that we are to be in church as much as we can. This sounds rather obvious and ridiculous to mention in a monastery of all places, but the problem of monks missing church services, or being present in body but absent in mind is an ancient problem, and one that abbots and superiors have tried to combat in monasteries everywhere and at all times.
The Optina elders speak to us about the benefit of being in church and praying in church.
St. Anthony of Optina writes:
Without the visible Holy Church, there could not be the Holy Mysteries of Christ, without which man could not inherit eternal life. Prayers during church services have so much power and significance that just the words, “Lord, have mercy,” surpass all the spiritual exercises performed in one’s cell. For this reason the Holy Fathers, while standing in church during divine services, imagined themselves standing before the very throne of God in heaven!
St. Nikon of Optina writes:
How good it is to be in Church—to hear the holy prayers, the chanting and the reading of the psalms! What spiritual depths are concealed in the psalms and other divine prayers! Of course, the reader cannot grasp everything; but if just one thought makes a lasting impression, then much has been gained.
And the Psalmist chants in the Psalter:
How beloved are Thy dwellings, O Lord of Hosts; my soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord. Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house; unto ages of ages shall they praise Thee. For better is one day in Thy courts than thousands elsewhere. I have chosen rather to be an outcast in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of sinners.
Now, if you and I are honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that much of the time, we don’t really believe that better is one day in Thy courts than thousands elsewhere, and we don’t live as if this were true. Inside of each one of us there is the thought that looks for an excuse to miss church services. I’m not saying it’s there all the time, and some of you novices may not believe what I’m saying, but for everyone, this thought will eventually pester them from time to time, and some more than others.
For some of us, the temptation might be to believe that because we are working for the monastery and for God’s Church, that we are relieved from being in church very much, and so we believe our conscience is at ease, not perceiving that something is wrong.
For others, the temptation is to think of excuses while we are in church for why we must leave and attend to some matter: in our office, on the farm, in the trapeza, or wherever. Sometimes we have the abbot’s blessing to miss services because of necessary work, but this is not what I am referring to. I am referring to that feeling inside of us that is relieved when we can leave church to go attend to some kind of work.
For others, we are in church all the time, perhaps even thinking that this sermon doesn’t apply to us and that we can now tune out… “brother so and so needs to hear this, I hope he’s listening!” Some of us are in church bodily, but absent mentally. Liturgy starts with Blessed is the Kingdom…! and off we go in thoughts and daydreams, when suddenly it’s the cherubic hymn and our thoughts return and we don’t know where they’ve been.
For others, when we get sick, the thought inside of us says with relief, “Thank God I’m sick! I won’t have to get up for church, and I can sleep in!”
The story is told in the life of Elder Anthony of Optina about a monk of good disposition, who let the passion for sleep get the best of him, and he began to miss attending matins in the morning more and more until he stopped going altogether. St. Anthony, who was the Skete superior at the time, begged and pleaded with him to be at matins, but the monk said it was beyond his strength and refused to obey. St. Anthony himself could no longer attend services because of the afflictions in his legs of terrible swelling and sores, but one day, he attended matins on behalf of the disobedient monk, and afterwards, went to the monk’s cell. St. Anthony fell down on his knees before him and said, “…my brother who is perishing. I am responsible for your soul, to give an answer before the Lord. You did not go to your holy obedience—I went for you. Have mercy, my brother, on yourself and on my sinful self!” He wept before him as he spoke, and because he had stood through matins, the sores on his legs were bleeding, and pools of blood poured out from his boots as he prostrated before the negligent monk. This is the degree of conviction that the Optina elders placed on attendance of church services.
Secondly, if we are to resolve to not only be in church, morning and evening, but to also pay attention, to pray, to listen to the psalms and hymns, then we must be prepared to war with the thoughts. First time visitors have often told me how they are assailed with negative, worldly or carnal thoughts during their time in church or in their room; but monks should know that our enemy, the devil, wars against us primarily in our thoughts, and that is where the battle is waged.
St. Barsanuphius of Optina writes:
Prayer in church is important. The best thoughts and feelings come in church, yes, and the enemy attacks more violently in church, but with the sign of the Cross and the Jesus Prayer, you drive him away. It is good to stand in some dark corner in church and to pray to God.
“Let us lift up our hearts!” the priest exclaims, but our mind often creeps along the ground, thinking about indecent things. Fight against this.
Elsewhere, he writes:
Sometimes they leave church because of thoughts. This, of course, is foolish. The enemy begins the attack of thoughts with the purpose of driving them from church. We must not surrender to the enemy. In most cases, the young ones have lustful thoughts, while the older ones have thoughts of anger, remembering past offenses. The enemy might say: “Remember how so and so insulted you in front of everyone, and you were silent and didn’t say a word to him. Come on! This is what you should have told him...” Sometimes from similar thoughts someone will completely flare up in anger. One must battle the thoughts.
I remember an incident during Holy Week, from my first year as a novice. It was Holy Thursday, where we read the twelve Gospel readings and the large crucifix is in the middle of the church. Prior to the service that evening, someone had said something to me, and I felt insulted, and I’m ashamed to say that I spent the entire service fixated on this person and was raging within, plotting how I might take my revenge. I confessed my anger later and came to realize how I had let the enemy and my own passions steal my attention away from the Gospel readings—on Holy Thursday of all times! The Lord goeth voluntarily to His Passion and there I was, a despicable little novice, boiling with anger over my petty grievances.
But God is merciful, and after we fall down, we get back up and resume the fight. As St. Barsanuphius said, aside from our battle with thoughts and the enemy’s war against us, the best thoughts and feelings come in church. Many of the saints were vouchsafed to see Christ Himself, His Most Pure Mother, and the saints and angels in church, while they were praying. Most of us will never noetically or physically see them present here, but by faith, we know that they are present here with us as we pray in Church.
St. Nektary of Optina writes:
One should not expect or seek miracles. We have one miracle: the Divine Liturgy. This is the greatest miracle.
Christ’s Body and Blood are offered here on the holy table, and we take him inside of us, illumining and deifying us in body and soul. The Theotokos covers us with her protection and motherly love as we constantly chant hymns to her throughout the services. The angels surround us, during the liturgy, fluttering about the holy table, as we sinners mystically represent the cherubim. The saints surround us, and all Orthodox Christians, saints and ordinary people like us, both the living and dead, are united by the blood of Christ into one Body, the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the greatest reality, the most important thing. Everything else out there is secondary.
So many great and mystical things are here for us each time we enter the church. The Optina elders are examples to us for their fidelity to the Church and her divine offices, and we can read in their lives what gifts and graces God bestowed on them. Let them always inspire us to keep struggling, to fight against our passions and excuses and laziness in missing church or in letting our minds wander off away from the prayers. And if we have grown despondent in feeling that we have achieved nothing for all our efforts, let me conclude with the humble words of St. Nikon of Optina:
During prayer, it is not beneficial to strive for exalted feelings. One should only discern the meaning of the words pronounced, pray attentively, and then–with time–the Lord will grant spiritual insight and heartfelt contrition.
May it be so. For to our God belongs honor and dominion, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
—A sermon delivered at Holy Cross Monastery on the Feast of the Optina Elders, October 10/23, 2011